The night before Tim Cook officially came out publicly for the first time, I received a text message from one of my best friends. Roommates for years, we’d often text or instant message one another before bed, and sometimes we check in the same way now miles away. He was telling me that he was planning on joining the LGBT ally group at his workplace and wanted some input on how to treat members of the group. Was it more important to celebrate our differences by asking questions about hardships and experiences or rather treat everyone as if orientation weren’t an issue? I told him that he shouldn’t treat it as a binary and that the fact he was cognizant of those stances already made him a great ally.
Mostly importantly, I said, he needed to show up and be himself.
When Tim Cook came out in an eloquently worded letter this week, he did just that for maybe the first time. It’s a significant gesture from such a titan of industry, even though his sexuality was something of an open secret for years. Gay publications have called him the most powerful gay man in the America for years. Tim Cook himself said that he’d been living as an out gay man to his associates for quite a while. The media came to regard his orientation as something unremarkable about him, like the plain black shirts he wears for keynote addresses.
So what was he waiting for? Why would someone so privileged in so many ways wait until he was 52 years old to come out of the glass closet? It seems like it was for the same reasons that so many of your LGBT friends and family hesitate. The nonchalance with which he came out belies how challenging it is to give away a very private part of oneself. Cook said he was afraid that coming out would overwhelm all other parts of his very public persona and take focus away from his role as the CEO of a rather successful company whose products are beloved around the world. “Look at Tim Cook,” would be said for all the wrong reasons.
My cynical side wonders why he waited so long to come out, especially in an industry so pro-gay that another of its CEOs was asked to step down when his anti-LGBT leanings came to light. Think of all the important people he could have influenced or minds he could have changed with his high profile position. But the part of me who remembers what it was like to come out acknowledges that coming out is an intensely personal process. He had his reasons which I deeply respect, even if I’m reticent to lavish praise. ( I can’t help but think of all the low profile coming outs from hairdressers, florists, designers, and other countless, nameless faces in our lives that have laid the foundation for CEOs, celebrities, and athletes to come out to high praise today.)
Even if Cook’s coming out wasn’t necessarily brave in light of his position and success, it was still a VERY BIG DEAL for many reasons. I argue that his brief statement was one of the most important, best articulated coming outs of all time.
Being first is important. People can be out in their private lives but still closeted in the workplace for fear of ramifications. Being gay at work can get in the way of relationships, important promotions, and dealings with clients. Studies show that when business leadership either comes out or displays positive attitudes towards the LGBT community, everyone follows suit. Leadership comes from the top, so to speak. In making his announcement, Mr. Cook also urged change in the workplace. In 29 states, including Mr. Cook’s home state of Alabama, it is legal to fire someone on the basis of sexual orientation. When it comes to gay advancement in the workplace, now people can say, “Look at Tim Cook.”
The most important part of Tim Cook’s announcement was his sheer audacity. While most public figures who publicly come out say that being gay is just another quality about them that doesn’t affect who they are as a person, Cook identified it as an absolutely central part of his identity. In fact, he went so far as to say, ““I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.” This is a powerful declaration of self, not just brushing aside his gayness as one of many aspects that makes him who he is.
“Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day,” said Cook. “It’s made me more empathetic, which has led to a richer life.” For many of us, he put into words what we were thinking while we were explaining away our gayness as just another incidental element of who we are instead of as a determining force that made us who we are. He spoke the often-obscured truth that being gay not only changes the way the world views you, but it also profoundly changes the way you view the world.
Tim Cook came to the conclusion that helping others outweighed his desire for privacy. If anyone knows about the importance of increased visibility, it’s the CEO of Apple. Minds change through others’ willingness to be open. That so many people will ask why it’s a big deal underscores that the recent, furiously paced gains in marriage equality do not equal full equality either in everyday treatment or under the law. If you don’t think his coming out is such a big deal, then he probably wasn’t coming out for you. He was doing it partially for himself, but mostly for that queer kid who still faces a tough road ahead of him or her and needs someone to look up to. “Look at Tim Cook,” is something he or she can say now too.
Tim Cook will leave a legacy by saying, “We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick.” Today for the first time, he did what was most important: he showed up by being himself.